The war on drugs has not gone far enough

Louis McEvoy, OULC member, argues that Labour should adopt a much tougher drug policy.

Liberals have long decried the war on drugs as, at the very least, a counterproductive approach. We’re told that drugs will always be in circulation, that keeping them criminal sustains organised crime, and that prohibition doesn’t work. Some go down a bleaker route, suggesting that these harmful substances should not only be decriminalised, but even legalised, for the sake of individual freedom of choice. The first argument is demonstrably untrue; the second, ethically bankrupt. The Labour Party is a party of socialists, not individualists, and a party which ought to be ruthless in eradicating whatever causes harm to society. On the basis of these first principles, we must go much further in the war on drugs.

I will agree with the pro-decriminalisation camp in so far as recognising that our current approach to drugs is not working. But the reason the current approach is ineffectual is simple: there is no real war being waged on drugs. Illegal drug use is on the rise because successive governments have been catastrophically tolerant towards drug consumption. You, reading this, will almost certainly know someone who has done drugs; you may have used drugs yourself. After all, there is no social stigma against it. What is this supposedly punitive, harsh war on drugs like in practice? A slap on the wrist, if that; possession of cocaine, LSD or heroin can in theory culminate in a seven-year prison sentence, but this is exceptional. Fines are the norm. If you’re caught with cannabis, you’ll usually get off with nothing more than a warning. This, we’re told, is the brutal war on drugs that we must stop.

If we had a proper war on drugs, we could witness real change. The pro-decriminalisation lot contend that this would make matters even worse; their totem is prohibition in 1920s America. Unfortunately, popular understanding is incredibly misguided: American prohibition did not criminalise private ownership and consumption of alcohol, and even then, it successfully halved alcohol consumption across the country. (Prohibition was ultimately overturned for the same reason many liberals now want to soften our laws: for the sake of tax revenue.) Elsewhere, even today, we can see real prohibition in action: Japan and South Korea are key examples. The argument that a war on drugs will fail to reduce drug consumption falls flat in the face of these countries: Japan’s black market is particularly tiny, far tinier than Britain’s, thanks to their tough practices. Japan boasts a very low crime rate alongside a very high conviction rate. This is no coincidence. When such an example is raised, the usual riposte will be that Japan is culturally different. Never mind, then, that Japan’s anti-drug laws were brought in after the War to cope with an epidemic of drug consumption; never mind that government can play a significant role in shaping national culture.

Tackling this problem with ruthlessness is the best and only option. Decriminalisation is a gateway towards legislation; its most prominent advocates are often candid about this. This might well take trade out of criminal hands – although the cost of heavily taxed drugs may perpetuate the illegal trade anyway, as is visible in some US states – but it would place it into the control of exploitative firms instead. If we do not take a genuinely tough line on drugs, routinely applying harsher sentences, harmful drug consumption and its grim effects on health will grow. Many of the advocates for a softer approach have good intentions, sincerely concerned about the scale of the problem we face, but decriminalisation would make things worse, sleepwalking to an even greater drug culture than we have at present. Labour should seek to be tough on drugs, and tough on the causes of drugs, rather than appeasing those who simply want to cash in on common misery.


The war on drugs has gone too far

Iris Kaye-Smith, former OULC Co-Chair, argues that Labour cannot be scared into inaction over drug decriminalisation.

The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been, by almost every conceivable criterion, a failure. This has been the consensus among British public health bodies for quite some time now. Every so often, there’ll be a new report, a new paper, advocating reform of the UK’s current policy, and there’ll be a small media stir, maybe a panel discussion on Radio 4, some Daily Mail pearl-clutching. But before long, the news cycle rolls inexorably on, and the much-needed debate about drug use in the UK, and how to minimise the harm it causes, is swept under the carpet.

We need to accept that what we have isn’t working. Under the current system, both possession and supply of drugs for non-medicinal use are criminal offences. In late 2016, it was argued in the British Medical Journal that these measures have had little impact on the supply and demand of drugs in the UK; they stimulate rather than curb the growth of organised crime networks, and they leave thousands of drug users vulnerable to overdose from unregulated and frequently adulterated substances. Indeed, they do more or less what the US’s experiment in banning alcohol in the 1920s did; the market was driven underground, rates of gang-related violent crime soared, and people were blinded, paralysed, and killed by illegally-distilled alcohol topped up with methanol. In hindsight, prohibition was a well-intentioned but misguided policy that caused more harm than it prevented. Perhaps our grandchildren will say the same of drug prohibition.

In March of this year, the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott declared that the war on drugs had ‘failed,’ yet flatly denied that a Labour government would consider legalising cannabis for recreational use. In doing so, the party missed an opportunity to shape the debate on this issue. This is one area in which the Green and Liberal Democrat parties have taken the lead, with both adopting decriminalisation policies and, more crucially, the principle that responsibility for the UK’s drug problem should be transferred from the Home Office to the Department of Health. With Labour’s plans for radical reforms in the funding and organisation of our health services, this lack of interest in creating safe, legal avenues for dealing with addiction is strange.

Perhaps leading party figures (quite justifiably) fear that Corbyn’s embattled Labour will draw the ire of the socially conservative right-wing press if seen to be soft on drugs. If the coverage of similar policies is anything to go by, the legalisation of cannabis or other widely-used drugs is still perceived as a middle-class indulgence. Yet this is patently untrue; cannabis, it is often quipped, has long been de facto legal for its white, middle-class users. As has been shown time and time again, people from ethnic minority and working-class backgrounds are still disproportionately more likely to be charged for drug possession, and if charged, more likely to be imprisoned. While we may theoretically be equal under the law, the institutional attitudes of the police and the judiciary have made these laws an instrument of race- and class-based oppression. If we are a party fighting for a fairer, more just society, where wealth and power are shared more equally, then how can we allow the inequitable prosecution of drug laws to go unchallenged?

There are no easy answers to the ethical problems of the drugs trade. Given its global nature, lasting solutions can only be found through international cooperation. But Labour needs, at the very least, to explore the options on decriminalisation in the UK. Currently, our drug laws cost us billions of pounds a year in prevention strategies that, in the last decade, have had a negligible impact on rates of drug use; they perpetuate institutionalised racism and classism, and most damningly of all, they contribute to countless preventable deaths that might have been avoided if the drugs sold on our streets could be tested and regulated. While it is difficult to envisage government control of the drugs trade any time in the near future, decriminalising possession of small quantities, such as Portugal did in 2001, and enabling adequately-funded health and social care services to take greater responsibility for tackling addiction, could be important steps towards bringing the problem under control.

The case against a second EU referendum

Charlotte Austin, OULC’s new Co-Chair, posits that there can be no winners from Labour backing a second EU referendum.

“Mr Corbyn wants to deny the poorest in society the benefits of Brexit,” tweeted Jacob Rees-Mogg on 27th February 2018.

This is what Labour is up against. The 2016 referendum result is probably the only reason why Theresa May’s Conservatives held on to government at the last General Election. It allowed them to ride the populist wave and allowed people like Rees-Mogg, who have spent their parliamentary careers slashing the living standards of the working-class, to promote themselves as champions of the people’s Brexit. All the while pushing for a race-to-the-bottom Brexit that will not deliver a shred of good to ordinary people.

Theoretically, there is a good case for a second referendum. You would not tell a scientist that repeating their experiment for accuracy was “trying again and again until you get the answer you want”. As democratic socialists and social democrats, Labour is a party of democracy and a vote on the final deal is theoretically good in that it makes governments listen to voters.

Nevertheless, as the Labour Party and as people who are keen to promote popular engagement in politics, a second referendum would have dangerous consequences.

Most importantly, political and legal experts are unclear if it would be possible to reverse Article 50 now that it has been triggered. It would ultimately be the decision of the European Court of Justice and since legal opinion is divided the outcome would be uncertain. The worst case scenario would be for Labour to promise a second referendum and then find out that a reversal of Article 50 is impossible. We’d look weak and clueless at best and it would be utterly devastating in the event of a Remain triumph in the second referendum.

The appetite amongst the public for a second referendum is inconclusive. A lot has been made of opinion polls showing a 16% majority for a second referendum. However, the referendum that a 16% majority is in favour of, is one providing a choice between the deal Theresa May secures and Brexit with no deal at all. What the ‘Stop Brexit’ campaigners are pushing for is a referendum on whether to accept the deal on offer or remain in the EU: those opposed to this referendum (42%) outnumber those in favour (40%).

We could have a vote on whether or not to accept the final deal. But the reality is that a Brexit deal produced by the Tories would likely be terrible for ordinary people and so would a no-deal situation. Only a Labour government could be trusted to negotiate a Brexit that puts the interests of labour over capital.

Promising a second referendum would severely endanger Labour’s electoral prospects. Labour sits on small majorities in several Brexit-voting constituencies: 22 in Dudley North and 30 in Newcastle-under-Lyme. While the distribution of Leave and Remain Labour marginals is fairly even, it is hard to see how a second referendum strategy would attract Remain voters. The only major party advocating a second referendum at the last general election, the Lib Dems, lost 0.5% of the vote share and only picked up 4 more seats compared with their 2015 disaster, hardly a monumental force for change in politics.

A serious issue with Labour supporting a second referendum is that the anti-Brexit movement has so far not been a grassroots one. As opposed to the huge groundswell in grassroots activism that accompanied Jeremy Corbyn’s transformative manifesto, anti-Brexit campaigning has not attracted comparable numbers despite the high turnout in the referendum. Stop Brexit has no leaders with which to build the movement. Blair, Mandelson, Major, Farage; all have come out of relative hiatus to support a second referendum. All are now out of touch with public opinion.

Going to Leave constituencies and making a case to remain for jobs, when their industries and livelihoods have already been wiped out as a result of politicians’ decisions, will not convince them to abandon the dream of Leave. Tony Blair isn’t going to suddenly inspire towns full of Europhiles. Someone like Boris Johnson, however, could easily go back to these places, galvanise their hostility to establishment politics; play on ever-increasing divisions in the community; and score a victory for both Leave and the Conservatives.

Reading closer into why Nigel Farage’s support for a second referendum, it becomes clearer why backing one would be such a massive gamble for Labour. A second referendum runs the serious risk of strengthening the Brexit case if people vote to leave: less than half of a recent YouGov poll thought that Britain’s decision to leave the EU was a bad one and even that does not translate into wanting to reverse the decision, as shown by the 2% plurality for opposition to a second referendum on withdrawal from the EU. Imagine having to re-hash the 2016 campaign, with all of its poisonous rhetoric about immigrants – think of Farage’s billboard moment – only for Leave to win a second time and for all of its arguments to be vindicated. The far-right would be galvanised and the attacks we saw on migrants in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum would be a drop in the ocean compared to what would occur if Leave won again. We need to do everything in our power to support migrants, and gambling their future on a slim chance of being able to remain in the EU is totally unfair.

And so for Labour, it seems that a second referendum has little to offer and a lot to lose. If the public are asked to choose between Theresa May’s anti-worker deal or no deal, I do not see how that is a choice that the Left could support. A referendum between the deal that is negotiated and reversing Brexit looks nigh on impossible and it is clear that the public do not support it. Only by returning a Labour government will we be able make something good come out of Brexit; to win an election, we cannot support a second referendum.


Picture: Abi Begum,

Trump’s visit signals a dangerous shift in UK politics: we must protest

“That’s what these protests against Trump’s visit are for; they’re to make sure we do not forget that there is something deeply troubling about how these administrations are treating the people they are meant to protect.” On the eve of widespread protests against Donald Trump’s UK visit, Sulamaan Rahim, OULC member and BAME Officer, explains why we should join the protests.

As a queer, brown person, Trump hates everything about me. So does Theresa May. She doesn’t tweet about it at 3am or express it so coarsely, but it’s there nonetheless. In allowing Trump to visit the UK, May has shown us, concretely and unsurprisingly, that this government is unfit to protect the most vulnerable in our society. From Trump’s distressing comments regarding ‘shithole countries’ and his Muslim ban to Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ and callous handling of the Windrush scandal, both Trump and the Tories have distressing records when it comes to rights of people of colour (POC) and LGBT rights. On Friday 13th July, we must take to the streets and protest to let the government know that we do not agree with their tacit approval of Trump’s administration and what it represents.

A quick glance at those highest up in Trump’s administration speaks volumes. Mike Pence, his Vice President, is a notorious homophobe who has at various points in his career supported conversion therapy, implied that gay couples are an indicator of ‘societal collapse’, and opposed allowing trans individuals to use their preferred bathrooms. Such appointments, as well as policies like banning trans individuals from serving in the military, shows that Trump has never cared about the LGBT community. In particular, they highlight the Right’s disturbing crusade to vilify trans people; they portray the granting of basic human rights to trans people as a threat to all that we hold dear. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Such policies create a hysterical climate of fear around people who are simply trying to live their lives and contributes to an increasingly negative discourse around the LGBT community.

It’s not, however, just the LGBT community that Trump revels in vilifying. Trump, like the UK Home Office, has also endeavoured to create as ‘hostile’ an environment (shout out to big T May) for POC as he can. Take his claims that many of those attending the white-supremacist Charlottesville rally were ‘very fine people’ and that there was ‘violence on many sides’. Let’s be very clear: Trump here was defending people at a rally who flew Confederate and Nazi flags and chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans. What this does is normalise extreme white-supremacist views; in the context of a ‘Unite the Right’ rally, it allows individuals to think of such behaviour as an acceptable part of right-wing politics. This serves to shift the whole political discourse rightwards and give credibility to what were once rightfully derided racist views.

His equivocation of the violence committed at the rally serves to reinforce a narrative of the oppressed oppressor. What this means is that anti-racist activism which may inconvenience oppressors (either materially, such as in clashes with racist organisations, or mentally, such as calling out racism when you see it) is somehow as bad as the racist oppression they are fighting against. This allows those in power to maintain the status quo; pushes for equality are seen as violent agitations equivalent to oppression and so are equally illegitimate and unworthy. This makes it much harder for these movements to reach critical mass in terms of public support and massively hinders progress. It also inflames racial tensions and creates a fear of communities of colour by characterising their struggle for equality as one of violence – something compounded by racist media tropes of violent POC (particularly black men).

We may think of Trump as an anomaly – someone whose actions would be deemed unacceptable in the UK. However, not only is this not the case, it can be shown that the Tories are creating a similar climate. It is more insidious, though – the methods are surreptitious and the change gradual. Our discourse and the norms of acceptability are shifting. This is exacerbated by the fact that the US sets a precedent for what is acceptable discourse in other, supposedly liberal, Western nations. As someone who is not a US citizen, I cannot use the democratic process to express my disdain at Trump’s policies, but I can highlight their absurdity and bigotry. It is imperative we do not normalise Trump’s views or allow him to shift the standards of acceptability. We cannot allow the UK to slide into similar patterns of ideology; something we can only do by continually scrutinising the government.

Turning our attention to the Tories, we can see some distressing ideological parallels with the Trump administration. It seems clear to me that there has been a significant rightward shift in the Party. In navigating the implementation of Brexit and having to secure a parliamentary majority via an alliance with the DUP, formerly minor backbenchers now have far more clout and power in decision-making, with backbenchers forcing Theresa May to shift rightwards lest they revolt. Such an instance of this is that the Victorian figure of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has said that he opposes same-sex marriage, is now a cult figure amongst many Conservative Party members and is even touted to become the party leader at some point in the future. His popularity and cultural influence highlight how, in trying to implement Brexit without a parliamentary majority, Theresa May has allowed such far-right backbenchers to weasel their way into the political narrative.

We are thus seeing such ultra-conservative positions deemed non-extreme – something which has the compounding effect of portraying progressive views as the ones that are extreme and leading to their being delegitimised. This is strikingly similar to the narrative created by Trump through his Charlottesville comments and has clear material consequences for LGBT individuals. The clearest instances of these consequences are in Northern Ireland, where nothing in the government’s LGBT Action Plan aims to introduce same-sex marriage there or to change the discriminatory blood donation deferral period for men who have sex with men to be in line with the rest of the UK.

The Tories are no stranger to delegitimising the concerns of minority groups; we simply need to observe the callousness with which complaints by the residents of Grenfell were handled in the time leading up to the tragic fire (please continue to support #Justice4Grenfell) or look at their coldness when dealing with the wrongful deportation and detainment of Windrush migrants. If that’s not enough evidence, former chairwoman Lady Warsi has called for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory party. Warsi has claimed that the party has previously had the attitude ‘fuck the Muslims’ – something perhaps indicative of the Tories’ wider attitude towards minority groups. It’s unsurprising therefore that Ipsos MORI found that, in the 2017 General Election, 73% of BME voters voted Labour compared to only 19% for the Tories.

The problem runs deeper than simple carelessness and ignorance, though. It is not often I will quote a Lib Dem, but Vince Cable put it brilliantly when he said, referring to Brexit, that “too many were driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink.” The Tories now embody this harkening to the past and this safeguarding of ‘traditional’ values, values which stratify society and place vulnerable minorities like POC and LGBT individuals at the bottom of the heap. This problem is becoming embedded in the country’s psyche and being normalised by the continual shift rightwards of political discourse.

There are many ideological similarities between the Tories and Trump’s administration which are worrying; we cannot allow this to go unnoticed and unchecked. We must make some noise. That’s what these protests against Trump’s visit are for; they’re to make sure we do not forget that there is something deeply troubling about how these administrations are treating the people they are meant to protect. And that is why I urge you all to get out there and protest. We cannot stand by and allow this insidious rightwards shift of our political landscape; it can only worsen the material conditions for those most vulnerable in our society.

A Labour Government Is The Only Cure

‘Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community.’ Lottie Sellers, OULC member, assesses where Nye Bevan’s vision for the NHS stands 70 years on.

This July, our NHS and its accompanying social care system turn 70 years old. Personified as the average British citizen at the approximate time of its foundation in 1948, chances are they would have died around a year ago at the not-so-grand old age of 69. Today, thanks in no small part to their own provisions, they could expect to celebrate their 80th birthdays. However, health and social care are not humans, they are public services – and they are ailing.

Under our current government, spending on health and social care is at the lowest it has ever been since the modern system’s foundation. Annual spending increases on the NHS of just 1.4 percent are a poor relation to New Labour’s 5.8 percent, and the effects are clear. The last two winters have seen ‘humanitarian crises’, as the percentage of patients seen by A&E staff within 4 hours of arrival – this being the official standard set out in the 2009 NHS Constitution – dived to just 85 percent in both January 2017 and 2018. In fact, even outside the notoriously difficult winter months, the 95 percent standard was last achieved in July 2015. As our emergency care services are stretched to breaking point, further burdens are placed on the wider health service. For example, the cancellation of thousands of scheduled operations this winter, in an attempt to divert resources and staff to A&E, demonstrate the hand-to-mouth state our health service is being pushed into by the government. The NHS is being forced to scramble for survival in the short term rather than focusing on longer term plans.

The social care situation appears to be even more dire. Average local authority spending has fallen by around eight percent in real terms since 2009 as central government has slashed funding, leading to the inability of an estimated 400 000 people to access care and, in a study published by BMJ Open last year, a direct correlation to an estimated 120 000 excess deaths since 2010. Social care, unlike the NHS, is means-tested and in 90 percent of authorities, it is currently available only to those with ‘substantial’ or ‘critical’ needs. Yet part of the government’s action on this issue has simply been to call on families of those in need of social care to step up their actions and take on more duties. This is irresponsible, unfair, and deeply insulting. Moreover, it ignores their existing dedication at a time when many home care workers can expect to be allocated just 15 minutes per visit. Patients who would ideally be provided for through social care, are ending up on hospital wards, intensifying the pressure on the NHS. However, thanks in a large part to the coalition’s structural changes to health and social care, the two services, whilst overlapping majorly in their provisions, are currently treated as if they are entirely different beasts, a situation damaging and confusing to patients and employees alike. Considering our ageing and increasingly chronically ill population, the bleak situation outlined here is likely only to worsen as long our government blames demographic change as an excuse for problems, all the meanwhile propagating the austerity programme that is causing so many of them.

So where to go from here? IPSOS Mori polling has placed healthcare second only to Brexit as the most frequently mentioned issue facing Britain as of November 2017, having risen fairly steadily since 2010. It would be in no way hyperbolic to suggest that the NHS is the most important service our country has; and despite the stellar efforts of its wonderful staff, its principle of good quality care free for all has been jeopardised under Conservative governance. The simple fact is that every single Labour government has paid more into the NHS than any Tory government ever has, and the simpler fact is that our health and social care services need money to survive. The possibility of long term funding for the NHS, and the government’s pledge of cash injections for local authorities to help fund social care, may offer some relief, but as an NHS Improvement Manager interviewed for this article points out: “It’s still not clear exactly what extra, and with what conditions attached, the government will provide [this funding]. The devil is in the detail; this is by no means a done deal.” This stands in contrast to Labour’s history of investment, correlating with record levels of satisfaction under its last government. Currently, it has pledged £30 billion to the NHS, and £8 billion plus a National Care Service to ensure popular affordability and availability of social care if elected, not to mention the crucial reintegration of the two services to ensure the coherence that is currently somewhat lost. Of course, these policies are as of yet theoretical. Labour needs to be elected to fulfil them. But looking back over the last 70 years, it was a Labour government that created the NHS and social care system; it is Labour governments that have given them their healthiest years; and it is a future Labour government that will now provide the best treatment to ensure these valuable services can be wished as many more ‘Happy Birthdays’ as they deserve.